Engaging Students: Essays in Music Pedagogy, vol. 2

Table of Contents

Content in the Learner-centered Non-major Classroom: Thinking and Listening Like a Musicologist

John Hausmann, University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music

What are we teaching students in our non-major courses? This disarmingly simple question cuts to the heart of our purpose as musician-educators. Our obligation to teach certain historical and stylistic information fuels concerns about “covering” enough material, which can cause us to lose sight of our students’ needs and the contemporary realities of college teaching. Since few of our students will ever need to recall facts about Rossini, ragas, or the Rolling Stones, what do we teach that will impact our students’ thinking and listening one, five, or ten years after the end of our courses? I suggest that our greatest value for our non-major students lies in our discipline-specific strategies for listening to, writing about, and thinking about music. Framed this way, our classroom goals shift, and we must rethink our traditional ideas of musicological content. Our customary materials—famous works and composers, historical contexts, styles, and the like—remain important but as models to demonstrate how experts hear and understand music.

Learning how to listen to and think about music impacts our students’ thought processes in a way that regurgitating Bach’s dates cannot. Moreover, this approach is rooted in a learner-centered approach to content. Scholarship supports claims that learner-centered teaching improves student-teacher interactions and increases student learning, engagement, agency, and metacognition, and the paradigm has been applied to music courses in a variety of ways with marked success. Maryellen Weimar believes that content in a learner-centered course fulfills three functions: it “establish[es] a knowledge base . . . develop[s] learning skills . . . [and] create[s] learner awareness.” Many non-major offerings are geared towards the first purpose, but this new balance of foundational understanding, disciplinary competence, and metacognition furthers the premise that true learning prepares students for a lifetime of self-directed education. It also replicates how we approach and understand our content: building on existing knowledge, we read, research, and analyze music to understand it more deeply, all the while reflecting on our own thought processes.

If we consider our content to be musicological thought and our materials as a means of modeling these techniques, how can this impact our teaching? Here are three examples I have used in a variety of non-major undergraduate classes. In my first example, I created a case study for a unit on music and war. I had my students answer a number of questions that I drew from James Davis’s “‘All Sounds of Life and Rage’: Musical Imagery in the Writings of Civil War Soldiers.” The case study provided my students with an active learning environment that allowed them to approach historical documents like a musicologist researching a topic. Students engaged in the material by making connections between background knowledge (from class materials and the article itself) and new information, analyzing primary sources and answering interpretive questions, and evaluating the relationship between their conclusions and Davis’s. These are all vital musicological skills and model thought processes that resonate with a number of different disciplines and other real-world situations.

I used my second example to blend summative and formative assessment in a final exam for a topically-arranged lower-level music appreciation course. I organized this class around two fundamental and powerful concepts: music is inherently both a social experience and polyvalent. FPCs are a discipline’s underlying, structural ideas. Not only do they provide a common thread to tie together a semester’s worth of material, they are the types of ideas that can impact your students’ thinking long after the course’s conclusion. I wanted to use this last opportunity to reinforce the links between my FPCs and the materials we’d studied all term. The assignment began with students recalling why concepts from certain units were illustrated by specific pieces (examples can be found in the appendix). Building on their knowledge base, students then had to determine how the same music could have functioned in another unit, justifying their decisions with specific musical evidence. Not only did this assignment reinforce the understanding that each unit we studied provided a critical lens through which they could interpret music, it demonstrated that there are multiple ways of listening to and interpreting any piece or song, a key aspect of contemporary musicological thought.

While the assignment’s first part focused on social and interpretive issues, the second part stressed technical competencies. My students completed an assessment that Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross term a defining features matrix, which was intended to make connections between different musics based purely on stylistic characteristics. This part of the assignment helped my students transfer and generalize listening skills they initially learned with specific examples. It also demonstrated a foundational aspect of music listening we often take for granted: we frequently apply similar listening techniques to a variety of pieces or styles. For example, when we hear homophonic music, we know to focus our listening on the primary voice and how it interacts with the supporting material. While we can adjust our ears automatically, I have found that non-musicians often struggle to apply existing aural models or scripts to new or unfamiliar pieces, unaware that the act of isolating the melody in a Mozart symphony or a Madonna song relies on similar techniques. Practicing these skills not only allows them to hear better, it helps them make connections with a diverse range of musics and think about familiar music in different ways.

My final example was inspired by Ryan Bañagale’s presentation at last year’s Society for American Music conference. Over the course of a semester, I wanted my rock history students to create a ten-minute podcast or video that analyzed a song or piece of their choosing while developing, refining, and presenting an interpretive argument. Students were to determine the best structure for their argument, write multiple drafts, engage in a peer review process, and create a final product consumable by their colleagues and the larger community. The various stages of this project not only suggest a model for working on and finishing a long-term project but also provide insight into the collaborative nature of musicking and the research process. The peer review process in particular requires students to thoughtfully comment on each stage of a colleague’s project and evaluate their work according to a rubric (which could be student-generated in upper level courses). Through this, students learn how to give constructive and helpful feedback and how to critically engage with a coworker’s project by articulating strengths, observing weaknesses, and suggesting solutions. Giving students opportunities to critique and direct their classmates’ work provides a space to practice valuable interpersonal skills applicable to a wide variety of careers and allows them to actively support and guide their colleague’s growing understanding of the material. This authentic assessment engages students in all aspects of musicology, from conception and interpretation to revision and presentation.

With a learner-centered approach to content, I observed two major changes in my teaching practice. First, my emphasis shifted from “what will I cover today?” to “what will the students do today?” Second, I reconceived my course content, de-emphasizing rote memorization of facts and instead focusing on giving students the conceptual tools of our disciplines, the mental and aural pathways we use to hear and understand music. These sample assignments reinforced my students’ factual knowledge while also training them to become aware of how they listen and what they could do with that information. My students were active and engaged in developing the skills necessary to become lifelong learners and intelligent consumers of music. Aside from the practical advantages, this approach encourages students to understand their experiences in college not merely as onerous consumption of discrete information but as opportunities to think and metacognate through new intellectual pathways.